A kinder, gentler, God?

Recently, my bible reading has been more 'in depth' than in the past. Specifically, when reading the New Testament, I have been following the cross-references to the Old Testament, and reading those passages as well.

What I'm about to say is probably 'old hat' to anyone else who has done the same exercise, but it has given me a fresh insight into how Jesus looks on the Old Testament. I think it's instructive how He (later followed by the likes of Paul) quotes from, and reinterprets, the Old Testament scriptures. For instance, in Luke 4:18-19, when Jesus sets out his mission by reading Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue in Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

He goes on to say that this scripture was fulfilled in him. But it is notable that he chooses not to complete verse 2 of Isaiah 61, which says: “and the day of vengeance of our God.

And that isn't the only place - Jesus does this sort of thing repeatedly. In addition, in the 'Sermon on the Mount' in Matthew 5, He keeps saying 'You have heard that it was said...' (referring to Old Testament scriptures) '...But I say to you...' (introducing a command often radically at odds with that in the Old Testament). Here He is, in effect, over-writing the Old Covenant with the New.

The Apostle Paul does this sort of thing too too. For instance In Romans 15:9-10 Paul quotes from both Psalm 18:49 and Deuteronomy 32:43 - passages that are hemmed in by quite bloodthirsty demands for revenge on the enemies of God’s people. He omits these and only quotes the sections on praise to God for his mercy.

Actually, when you look at scripture 'in the round', this apparent 'softening' of God's attitude is the culmination of a long process. When we first encounter God in scripture, he comes across as a pretty angry, intolerant, guy - much like the pagan 'tribal' gods of that era. But gradually, the anger seems to dissipate, and His love and forgiveness seem to begin to shine through in a new way - achieving their ultimate expression in Jesus. It's interesting too, that in parallel with that, God also appears to become more 'outward-looking'; more 'universal' - less just the God of Israel, and more the God of everyone and everything.

And this is probably where I really bump up against those who insist that the bible is God's literal word, and that the people who wrote it were mere 'conduits' - automata if you like. Reading the bible in great big chunks, as I am wont to do nowadays, and also, in parallel, reading a lot of ancient history, leads me to the view that, though scripture is definitely inspired by God, what is written is coloured, very much, by the culture and attitudes of the societies in which the writers lived. And that view goes a long way, in my opinion, towards explaining the difference between what we see in the early books of the bible, written when Israel was a small nation fighting for survival amongst many others, when compared to the much later ones, written when the authors lived within an empire which spanned virtually the whole of the then known world.

What we're seeing in the New Testament is, I think, a change in the way God is presented, rather than a change in His character. And because Jesus is both fully man and fully God, the image of God which He presents in the New Testament must, surely, be the definitive one? Jesus is concerned to present God as saviour - as John tells us:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. John 3:17

And Jesus himself says:

For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. John 12:47

I'm not saying that we should dismiss altogether what we read in the Old Testament, but we should read it as Jesus himself seems to have - with the emphasis firmly on the positive, loving, aspects. The gospel preached in the New Testament is one of love and redemption, not of hatred and vengeance...

Bishop Kallistos Ware says, in his book 'The Orthodox Way':

"Love and hatred are not merely subjective feelings, affecting the inward universe of those who experience them, but they are also objective forces, altering the world outside ourselves. By loving or hating another, I cause the other in some measure to become that which I see in him or her. Not for myself alone, but for the lives of all around me, my love is creative, just as my hatred is destructive."

Jesus said:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34

God bless you.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022